The sun had sunk below the treeline and I was parked alone on a gravel approach, facing a field of dead sunflowers. I had just sped five miles out of the dead-zone town I was staying in, and finally I had mobile data again. As I watched my smartphone screen, two days of emails flooded into my inbox and I felt a physical ecstasy, a squirt of serotonin or dopamine or whatever it is that the body releases when an addict scores.
The rush was so conspicuous that when I was done checking my email I couldn’t help but reflect on how badly I’ve come to depend on invisible wireless networks for my senses of control and connectedness and possibility. I knew that my current situation — stuck working for four days in a town with no phone or internet — was bearable to me only because I knew it was temporary.
My employer had sent me and my assistant to a map-dot called Glenboro, two hours from the city. Accommodations had been set up for us at a green and white 55-dollar motel right on the highway. After we checked in, I jokingly referred to it as a “one-star hotel” — the one star being for, if anyone asked, “No visible mice,” but during breakfast on the last day I had to retract even that star.
I am a city person and have known that for a long time. Small country towns give me existential crises. They make me crave two things: my home city’s tap water, and a feeling of meaning to what I’m doing. I don’t know quite why. In small towns I feel aimless and self-conscious and disoriented, like I’m moving too fast and expecting too much. Maybe I am, and small towns make me confront that. Or maybe I just don’t like them.
Maybe because I was without telecommunications, my sphere of awareness filled with small-town minutae and it was almost too much sometimes. On our first day, this existential daze was settling over me when we finally stopped circling and settled on a place to eat lunch. It was a hotel-bar-restaurant but at least two of the three of those appeared to be permanently closed. The restaurant door was open but there was no other indication that anyone was there. We sat anyway.
We waited for quite a while, mostly staring, before one of us decided to make things happen. My assistant leaned into the door beside the till and called “Hello,” as if he were standing at the mouth of a cave. Nobody answered and he sat down again. Eventually a server appeared carrying two menus and a baby, and disappeared again for a long time.
During that long time it grew impossible to sit still and so I figured going to the bathroom might be slightly more interesting than sitting and staring. So I ventured into the cave, and looked for a bathroom, and I found one, but it didn’t look public. There was a bathtub and fish-pattern shower curtain. The toilet appeared to be unflushed but I would later learn that’s just what the town’s water looks like. At eye-level above the toilet tank there was an embroidered wall-craft that said “Nobody notices what I do around here until I don’t do it.” Below that was one that said “Jesus died for me.” Suddenly I felt like a remorseful burglar and retreated to the dining room.
Lunch did eventually happen and afterward I was never so happy to go back to work.
Work was the easy part, because it takes place in a world that’s meaningful to me and that I am in control of. It was the evenings in the motel that were deadening. I can’t believe there were only three of them.
Meeting new people, the greatest joy of traveling, seemed unlikely. I think we only saw the same twelve or fourteen people over and over again. There are no girls in Glenboro, I’m pretty sure of that. All women are over sixty and they dress and cut their hair like men. On the second-last night there was, briefly, a young waitress who brought us menus, but I began to doubt that I had seen her because when she returned she was a 300-pound young man and remained so for the rest of the evening.
The inn was green and white inside too. I presume it met whatever legal standards there are for renting a room to someone in a developed country, but it must have been close. The bed was hard and wiry and I had some kind of allergic sinus reaction whenever I got close to it. The water smelled intensely of rust, and so did I after my first shower. The bathtub faucet had so much mineral buildup on its spout that it looked like a pretentious modern art installation.
I don’t like television but without its assistance on those three nights I would have had to confront Pascal’s eternal problem of man not being able to sit quietly in a room alone. I brought books as always but I found when I turned off the television the rust smell from my hair would overwhelm my senses and reset my concentration every few seconds.
So it had to stay on. Oddly it was a new set, a flatscreen about the size of a cafeteria tray, of an unfamiliar brand that rhymes with a familiar brand.
I’ve kept TV out of my home life for about five years now and I quickly remembered why. It doesn’t entertain me but simultaneously makes me depend on it to entertain me. Channel-wise there was nowhere I can bear to stay for long but continuing to flip was somewhat comforting. It was rare that I passed by something worth flipping back to but that’s probably better because on that remote pressing the channel down button either advances one channel or retreats three channels.
The Democratic National Convention was on maybe seven of the eighteen channels. Each revolution around the channels presented a different party member giving a speech. I have no interest in hearing any choir preaching to itself but I made a game of hesitating long enough to hear a single out-of-context phrase before I moved on, something like “…threat to our children’s future” or “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!” and the crowd cheers like they’re at a hockey game as I flip again.
Each channel showing the DNC was slightly different. The most bearable one, as long as the sound was off, only showed Wolf Blitzer in a little window talking to himself while wide angle shots of the convention appeared in a larger window beside him. Behind both windows were red, white and blue CGI stripes slithering across the screen on an angle. Sometimes Wolf Blitzer became Anderson Cooper for a moment.
There was also tennis on, which would have been worth watching but the screen was so small that I couldn’t see the ball from where I was. I could hear it, so I know it was there, but I could only see two players swinging racquets urgently on an empty blue court. It could have been in a modern art museum too, on a silent screen in a dark room with a few patrons watching, each mostly just hoping they appear to the others as someone who gets it.
Even the flies were bored there. Whenever I brushed one away, it wouldn’t move until my hand actually touched its body. My assistant was able to trap one by slowly lowering a glass over it. On the third night he kindly leaned over to shoo a fly from the edge of my glass of coke, but that only appeared to startle it, because it flinched and fell backwards into the coke and disappeared beneath the surface. A few seconds later it emerged like an action star and struggled for a moment before righting itself and flying away. It was a great moment and I will never forget it. Yes I drank it anyway. Coke with a fly in it can’t be much worse for your health than coke.
We drove home the next day, with by then no conversation left in either of us, and it felt more like a Sunday evening than a Friday evening. When I got back I called some friends and went out with a vengeance.
My experience in Glenboro was so vividly dull, so consistently rich in everything I don’t like, that I knew I needed to write it down and that a clear moral would emerge by the end of it. But it didn’t. It was just a bizarre story with no apparent takeaway. I’m someone who finds meaning everywhere, like it’s a habit. Even if I’m only projecting it, it does something for me.
I wracked my brain for the lesson. I made coffee. I distracted myself. Whenever writing leads me to brain-wracking, I end up checking my email and my Facebook without realizing, and that’s when the moral appeared to me in plain words.
It wasn’t that I’m addicted to modern amenities, I knew that already. As I was staring at my word processor, looking for meaning, my friend was posting on Facebook something he said to me months ago, in reference to something completely different, across a breakfast table in a lower east side cafe:
“Honor your experience, but don’t rush to interpret it.”